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  • Brendan Stec

The tools that shape us

"We shape our tools, and therefore they shape us."

– John Culkin


Imagine asking twenty random strangers to name a single technology they absolutely couldn't live without.

The likely answers: smartphone, car, computer, Internet service, pacemaker, bicycle, television, electricity.

But there's one technology that no single person would likely list... Or even think about...

That's right: the clock.

Now, imagine your own life without a clock. Suddenly, there are no reminders to wake you up, no guidelines for when to leave for work, no structure for how to organize your work day or social life, no tool for you to measure the precious seconds that ceaselessly tick away.

Imagine running a well-developed, organized economy without clocks. There is no way to schedule planes, route buses, organize work days, or remember holidays. Sports games start but no one knows when to get there or for how long they should stay. The President gives a speech, but no one knows when to tune-in. For every question of "when" – when to leave work, when to start the surgery, when to meet for coffee – there is no precise answer.

The clock solves these issues by providing the steady, endless beat that we can all march to, day-in and day-out. Clocks are the universal constant between us all – regardless of language, belief, wealth, or intelligence – structuring our days and synchronizing millions of us across the globe.

In fact, the clock may be our most important technology, the foundation of our modern, organized world, where Amazon packages are consistently delivered and Uber rides to anywhere are only minutes away. Before precise mechanical clocks became prevalent in the 1300's, we lived in a kind of Dark Ages, the structure of our day at the mercy of the sun's abstract position. Our schedules were more unregulated, or as Jacques Le Goff put it, "dominated by agrarian rhythms, free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity." (1)

By the late Middle Ages, clocks, perched high above the town square in communities across Europe, shattered this bucolic, relaxed way of life. Bells now signified the start of work, the start of lunch, the start of town celebrations, the end of Mass, the end of government assembly, the closing of stores. Clocks enabled synchronized communication between craftsmen, merchants, and government officials from both across the town and across the country. They began to regulate the length of school days, the duration of religious services, and when people should work or play and for how long.

In this fundamental way, clocks not only allowed us to change our way of life, they also changed us.

Now confident in our new ability to precisely measure abstract things, we became more scientific and experimental. We started measuring materials, cables, distances and chemicals, and soon we were inventing calculators, pianos, telescopes, champagne, and of course, more advanced clocks. We learned arithmetic to calculate the time spent forging a sword or the time until supper. We learned to make predictions for how long certain tasks, such as walking to work or cooking a stew, would take. Now able to measure time and distances, we courageously boarded ships to explore the New World and measure the entire planet.

The clock changed us in other ways, too. With time now ticking away at our jobs, in our houses, and on our wrists, we became tethered to a methodical schedule independent of our own desires. We started going to work when the clock struck nine, not when we were ready. We started eating lunch when the clock struck noon, not when we were hungry. We started going to sleep when the clock struck bed time, not when we were tired. While the world grew more efficient, scheduled, and organized, truly operating like "clockwork", so did we.

Or, as Adam Westbrook describes it (2):

"When we mechanized time, we also – and completely by accident – mechanized us."

Most of us don't even realize this incredible power the clock holds over our routines, our decisions, our society, our way of life. It's because we're introduced to the clock at such a young age, before we know anything else. As kids, we learn the dreadful meaning of "bed time" and the importance of always "being on time." As adults, we say "time is money" or "stop wasting my time." Growing older, we wonder "where did the time go?" Meanwhile, all of us – young and old – always seem to need more time. Ironically, this universal force, constantly influencing and stressing us, is a creation of our own, an abstract concept we simply measure with some pendulums and gears.

This invisible ubiquity of time reminds me of a funny story told by the writer David Foster Wallace (3):

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Just as these fish are totally unaware of the water, the invisible environment they need for survival, we too are totally unaware of the clock's rather invisible influence on how we perceive the world and how we structure our daily routine. We simply don't know anything different. And at this point, with our developed world so dependent on clocks, we couldn't do anything different, either.

Clocks are just one example of what I call invisible technologies, tools we are so dependent upon that we actually forget they are merely devices made of circuits or gears and not some universal necessity for humanity. These technologies are so ubiquitous that we often don't notice the restrictions or limitations they impose on us on a daily basis. With clocks, we adopted them widely for their ability to structure our day and enable mass synchronization, without considering that they also eliminate most of the flexibility and natural flow of time in our daily routines.

This raises an important question: what restrictions or limitations do other technologies impose on us? This is obvious for certain specialized tools. Binoculars, for example, amplify our ability to see objects far away while completely eliminating our peripheral vision. And tractors allow mass-planting of seeds, but eliminate the farmer's tactile feel and understanding of the soil.

But what about email and text messages, which permit global, instant communication but eliminate the genuine face-to-face interaction that real, human conversation demands? What about recommendation engines, which select great movies or songs or products for us, but in a way remove our free choice to explore completely new options? Or even the computer, connecting us to information, pictures, and people from around the world while forcing us to sit hunched at a desk in air-conditioning to access them?

As we grow more comfortable with our favorite technologies, it's easy to forget about these key restrictions and limitations. We forget computers, by providing us too much information or "help", can actually inhibit our problem solving ability. We forget that the Internet, by providing us instant access to the exact book or research we want, can prevent us from exploring the novel ideas we may have confronted digging through stacks in the library. We forget that social media represents our unique and nuanced personality through mere pictures, categories, and doesn't fully capture who we really are.

Depending on these "invisible" technologies each day, we don't always objectively evaluate their true costs or question their alleged benefits. We simply broadcast that they will solve our largest problems, they will improve efficiencies, they will reduce costs, they will change the world. But we often forget they will also change us.

And we can look to the clock as a prime example.



(1) Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff (p. 44)

(3) "This is Water" speech by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

Further Reading

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010)

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